Tag Archives: reintroduction

Could lions solve a secondary predator issue in North Africa?

Feral dogs photographed by A. Woodhouse http://africageographic.com/blog/feral-dogs-imfolozi/

The concept of secondary predator effects on degraded ecosystems is well established. If the large carnivores at the top of the ‘food chain’ are eliminated, then species lower down the pecking order are given a free reign to devastate prey species or the vegetation, if they are grazers (Borrvall and Ebenman, 2006; Duffy, 2002). By inference the presence of primary predators controls the trophic levels below them in the ecosystem.

Whilst large carnivores are necessarily rare, from a trophic, or food energy transfer, perspective (Colinvaux, 1990), they appear to have an amplified impact on the behaviour and presence of other species can be a significant moderating effect in ecosystems. A recent study identified that even perceived presence of large carnivores reduces the feeding routines and impact of secondary predators  in particular in experiments with racoons (Suraci et al 2016).

Do these observations and phenomena relate in any way to the pressures on ecosystems in North Africa? Clearly, land use by mixed flocks of goats and sheep would be changed (to some extent) by the presence of large carnivores, although how this would affect long term landscape recovery is unclear (without some system to manage those flocks). There also is a suspicion that some Barbary macaque populations are be impacted by predation from feral dogs, particularly causing losses in infant monkeys.

Could lions provide an opportunity to deter overgrazing or the presence of feral dogs in those habitats of Barbary macaques?

Further Reading:

Borrvall, C. and Ebenman, B. (2006) Early onset of secondary extinctions in ecological communities following the loss of top predators. Ecology Letters, 9, 435–42

Butynski, T.M., Cortes, J., Waters, S., Fa, J., Hobbelink, M.E., van Lavieren, E., Belbachir, F., Cuzin, F., de Smet, K., Mouna, M., de Iongh, H., Menard, N. & Camperio-Ciani, A. (2008) Macaca sylvanus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T12561A3359140.  http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T12561A3359140.en. Downloaded on 26 February 2016.

Colinvaux, P. (1990) Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare. Penguin Books.

Duffy, J.E. (2003) Biodiversity loss, trophic skew and ecosystem functioning. Ecology Letters,  6: 680–687 doi: 10.1046/j.1461-0248.2003.00494.x

Suraci, J.P., Clinchy M., Dill, L.M., Roberts, D. and Zanette L.Y (2016) Fear of large carnivores causes a trophic cascade. Nature Communications, 7, 10698  doi:10.1038/ncomms10698  http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160223/ncomms10698/full/ncomms10698.html

Woodhouse, A. (2014) Feral dogs at iMfolozi. Africageographic, Posted: April 30, 2014  http://africageographic.com/blog/feral-dogs-imfolozi/

The sixth vision: could the former northern range become a refuge for Panthera leo?

One perspective on Barbary lion and North Africa revolves around the ‘romantic’ notion of reintroducing this charismatic species back into its former range. A second perspective is more pragmatic and equally visionary; using the species as a focus for driving the restoration of habitats in the region. A third vision, more pragmatic perhaps, would be to drive a tourist industry for economic benefit. A fourth vision is to preserve genetic diversity in Panthera leo or even selectively ‘breeding-back’ the Barbary lion, by retaining the genes held by lions from the Moroccan Royal collection (although this could still be achieved in captivity). A fifth vision would see North Africa developed as a new enclave for Panthera leo persica (currently only extant in India) – from the wild population most closely related to the Barbary lion.

Could there be a sixth vision – to provide an enclave for Panthera leo as climate change disrupts the suitability of existing habitats south of the Sahara? A recent paper shows the risk of decline in current habitats suitable for lions (Peterson et al 2014). Up in the northern strip of Africa, along the Mediterranean coast there are potentially some small enclaves of habitat. Would it be prudent to make these a refuge for lions?

If so, which lions would we put there? What sort of ecosystem should develop as a result (prey, landscape, human use)? Which might be the best locations? What controls might be needed to protect humans, livestock and lions?

Peterson and Radocy Climnate change predictions


Peterson A.T., Radocy, T., Hall, E., Peterhans, J.C.K., and Celesia, G.G. (2014) The potential distribution of the Vulnerable African lion Pathera leo in the face of changing global climate. Oryx 06/2014; 48(04):1-10. DOI:10.1017/S0030605312000919

De-extinction: dinosaur to dodo… or at least to the Barbary lion?

Is the prospect of a lion living wild in the Moroccan landscape just fantasy fiction?

Is the prospect of a lion living wild in the Moroccan landscape just fantasy fiction?

The growth in knowledge of genetic technologies has raised the topic of “De-extinction”, the recovery of extinct species. But is it worth spending money and resources to produce a conservation ‘gimmick’, like a resurrected mammoth? This is a question of ethics; the value of a curiosity. But there are practical implications as well; if we are to reintroduce species into the wild, are we really good enough at reintroductions to make this a success (Donlan 2014)?

De-extinction discussions often relate to famous species such as the Woolly Mammoth, Passenger Pigeon, Dodo and Thylacine and are often criticised for the “Jurassic Park” element of the argument. However one step back from those more spectacular proposals are recently lost sub-species including the Barbary Lion (Jones, 2014) as potential ambassadors or mascots for conservation and biodiversity recovery in their lands of origin. This prospect has been the on-off discussion concerning the fate of the lions of the Kings Collection in Morocco for decades (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

However, the argument for this type of work needs to go deeper. Recovery of such a formidable species into the wild requires a transformation in the landscape and in the thinking of local people, including the conservationists themselves to develop a sensible and worthwhile model of reintroduction. Reintroduction must match biology, socio-economics, local culture and politics – and most of these factors do not involve scientific expertise, but skills and knowledge in quite different aspects of work.


Donlan, J.  (2014) De-extinction in a crisis discipline. Frontiers of Biogeography, 6(1) http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2x70q4nk

Jones, K.E. (2014) From dinosaurs to dodos: who could and should we de-extinct? Frontiers of Biogeography, 6(1) http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9gv7n6d3

Nowell K.,  and Jackson P. (1996) Wild cats, status survey and conservation action plan. Gland: IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group.

Room to move in?

Picture a valley in North Africa, described by Yamaguchi & Haddane (2002):
Forests 02 00777f3 1024“…Between the Middle and High Atlas lies a rocky mountainous area where green oaks dominate the landscape…where the endangered Barbary leopard may still survive… Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus), Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia) and wild boars live there, and Cuvier’s gazelles (Gazella cuvieri) and Barbary red deer (Cervus elaphus barbarus) may also be reintroduced…lions may be released into a securely-fenced semi-natural enclosure…to live with minimum human intervention…, releasing them into an open area is out of question… “

In the North African biosphere, the prey biomass densities are much lower than in the savannahs of Sub-Saharan  Africa or the dry forests of western India. The Moroccan Atlas is likely, on average, to be able to support probably less than four lions per 100km2. In the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India, where domestic livestock as a supplementary prey base, the carrying capacity of lions is estimated  at around 15 lions per 100 km2 (Banerjee et al., 2013).

Other comparisons with the higher energy, prey dense  and open landscape of the Gujarat (where lions can leave the forest for surrounding human-dominated areas in times of food shortfalls) show how constrained the landscape in North Africa would be:

  • Gir Forest, Gujarat (1500 km2) – 400 lions
  • Kodinar coastal forest, Gujarat (60 km2) 12+ lions

Translocation of lions in India has been planned for some time. The planned release site in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary (an area of 900 km2) would involve reintroduction of only 5-8 animals intially (with plans to move 1-2 adult males every 5 years out of the sanctuary). So, even in a relatively large and currently established wildlife habitat with a reasonably dense prey base, only a very small number of lions would be released.

Additional complications of home range size and number of groups would be a major constraint for any lion reintroduction in North Africa. Would North African animals live in large prides as cmomonly encountered on the African savannah, in family groups, or would a single lioness holds resource territory while male coalitions attempt to maximize female groups within their range, as in India? (Black et al., 2013; Yadvendradev et al, 2009)?

Whilst having wild lions back in North Africa is a big dream for some, it has practical limitations. And then there are the significant needs of local people…


Banerjee K, Jhala YV, Chauhan KS, Dave CV (2013) Living with Lions: The Economics of Coexistence in the Gir Forests, India. PLoS ONE 8(1): e49457. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049457

Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL (2013) Examining the Extinction of the Barbary Lion and Its Implications for Felid Conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060174

Linares, J.C.,  Taïqui, L. and  Camarero, J.J. (2011) Increasing Drought Sensitivity and Decline of Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) in the Moroccan Middle Atlas Forests Forests, 2(3), 777-796; doi:10.3390/f2030777

Yamaguchi N, Haddane B. (2002) The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas Lion Project. International Zoo News 49 (321): 465-481.

Yadvendradev, V.J. et al. (2009) Home range and habitat preference of female lions (Panthera leo persica) in Gir forests, India. Biodiversity and Conservation.DOI: 10.1007/s10531-009-9648-9

Would a big cat species be able to survive in North Africa today?

A significant argument against reintroduction of lions into North Africa is that with the combination of deforestation, desertification and impacts on landscapes, plus the continued ingress of human communities, livestock and infrastructure into formerly wild areas, there is little space for a large carnivore in the region.

However the experience with lions in India is that the animals can be quite resourceful in surviving in a region which is relatively heavily populated. In Gujarat, India the human population is 310/km2 (800/sq mi). In Algeria this is 16/km2, but it should be noted that most of the land area is desert. In Tunisia there is proportionally less desert and the human density is 70/km2. In Morocco it is 74/km2.(World bank).

However larger cats still appear to hang on (just) – indeed the leopard may still survive in the Atlas mountains, although last seen in the late 1990s. A much smaller feline, the serval has been recently spotted in the Atlas for the first time. Most of the other species keep to remote Saharan areas.

In the southern fringes of the region where the Saharan and the Sahel link to sub-saharan Africa, several cat species are present, even if in low numbers. Scat analysis by scientists working in southern Algeria identified continued presence of leopard. Several cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) were shot during the early 1990s in southern Morocco and Cuzin (2003) suggested although  a few individuals could survive (less than 20), they are most likely extinct. Recent camera trapping in southern Algeria (covering an area of 2,800 square kilometres) the first systematic survey across the central Sahara identified four individual cheetahs.

The first camera trap footage showing a cheetah in southern Algeria in . Credit: Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA; courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society (2009)


Busby et al (2009) Genetic analysis of scat reveals leopard (Panthera pardus) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in Algeria. Oryx, 43(3), 412–415

Première nationale: un serval photographié dans le moyen Atlas http://ecologie.ma/premiere-nationale-un-serval-photographie-dans-le-moyen-atlas/ (photo: Salim Meghni)

Wildlife Conservation Society. “Critically Endangered Cheetahs In Algeria Snapped With Camera Trap.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 February 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090227082603.htm>.

World Bank http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.POP.DNST accessed October 2014.